Interview: Paul Hecker and Hamish Guthrie of Hecker Guthrie

  • When it comes to names synonymous with contemporary Australian design, Paul Hecker and Hamish Guthrie are two of the first that come to mind. As the directors of multi-disciplinary design practice Hecker Guthrie, they have carved out a reputation for thoughtful, refined spaces that you can’t help but feel drawn to. Over the past fifteen years of leading the studio they have been responsible for some of the best-loved (and awarded) design projects in recent memory, from The Ivy in Sydney to Piermont in Tasmania and countless residential and commercial projects in their body of work.

    Having featured the studio’s works numerous times in the past, we at est consider Hecker Guthrie one of the most reliable sources of local design inspiration, so it was with great enthusiasm (and a little intimidation!) that we sat down with Paul and Hamish to reflect on their impressive careers to date and learn where they seek out inspiration.

    You’ve both had extensive careers – how did you first meet, and what led you to founding what is now Hecker Guthrie?

    Paul Hecker: I started my career in Adelaide, but I met Hamish when I couldn’t get a job in Adelaide so I came to Melbourne and worked at Daryl Jackson Architects (now Jackson Architecture), and at the time Daryl Jackson was one of the few architects that employed interior designers. It’s really interesting that now there are so many more interior designers, but when we started back in 1986 it was a much different market, there were far fewer interior designers, and the architect was the primary consultant and the architect was telling us what to do.

    It was funny because design was one of those things I always enjoyed but I was never passionate about design until we won a project on Crown at the casino. I was no longer in Darryl Jackson’s office, we were in an office specifically for interiors and that absolutely changed the way I saw interior design and what the potential of interior design was. Even as themed as the spaces were, working on a project like Crown where the interior was more important than the exterior was a real first for me. It completely changed my approach to design and how enthusiastic I was.

    Hamish Guthrie: I joined Daryl Jackson the year after Paul as a student, I came in on my holidays to work there. Working in an architectural practice was a great foundation for our own practice years later. The Crown project was an amazing opportunity because there were budgets no one had ever seen before, there was a fast-tracked timeline, and the freedom to explore ideas, finishes and materiality we’d never even considered before working in an architectural practice. Paul was entrenched from the project and I admired his work, the way he explored ideas and the freedom he had in that environment to push design in a way I hadn’t seen before.

    Paul: When Kerry (Phelan) and I went on to work together as Hecker Phelan, we wanted Hamish because he’d just finished working on the Georges project and had been central to that project along with further retail design experience like Jigsaw etc. Hamish came to Hecker Phelan in 2000, and it was only two years before we realised if we were going to keep him we had to make him part of the business and that’s when we became Hecker Phelan Guthrie. We’ve known each other for about thirty years this year.

    Hamish: I guess there is that respect and admiration for the way each other works, and for Kerry Phelan also because again she was another person who I really admired. I don’t think in the beginning any of us knew where it was headed – it was about a group of likeminded designers coming together and working on interesting projects. We’ve taken every project as it comes and don’t look too far ahead, just try to do the best on every project that comes through the studio and make a difference in our ideas while trying to challenge ourselves and clients through that process – and hopefully that leads to good outcomes.

    Piermont Retreat & Restaurant | Photo by Shannon McGrath
    Piermont Retreat & Restaurant | Photo by Shannon McGrath
    Piermont Retreat & Restaurant | Photo by Shannon McGrath

    Your portfolio spans hospitality, retail, commercial and residential – how do each of these projects influence one another, and what attracts you to pursuing projects across sectors?

    Paul: We fundamentally approach all projects in the same way, because what we’ve realised is you want to make places that people feel good to be in. That’s before you even start talking about what the aesthetic is or what things look like, I think it comes with experience, it’s less about something that’s obviously ‘now’ and more creating places that you actually like to be in. I think we’ve all been down the path where there’s an aspect of fashion and novelty to things that don’t necessarily mean it has longevity, and now I think we’re much more about what is the essence of creating a space that is beautiful – and what do you put in those spaces, what is it that makes a space special?

    Hamish: I think design is, for better or worse, often misconstrued about being about a style, at a surface level, and I think it comes with maturity that you’re distilling the ideas and getting back to what does make a successful space. Through the start of your career you are exploring novelty and the gambit of ideas, you’re pushing the envelope and there’s a bit of a ‘stand out from the crowd’ aspect but I think with maturity and by learning from your own processes what spaces you’re attracted to, you stop concentrating on fit outs or surface processes and it’s less about a look, more about the quality of materiality, the spatial quality and an engagement with the experience.

    It’s a considered space, where you consider everything and discount the ideas that are not relevant to the essence of what you’re trying to do. Whether it’s the orientation, the materiality, everything – the work and our ideas are getting back to basic, classic ideas while finding that point of difference and unique design perspective.

    Paul: We’re also looking for that theatre of the space; you want to give people a heightened sense of different things, whether it’s serenity or calm or cosiness or warmth, it’s how do we fulfil that, how do we create that. Making something immaterial become literal.

    Prahran Residence | Photo by Shannon McGrath

    “I don’t think there’s a difference between hospitality, retail and commercial, I think it’s exactly the same process, create a beautiful volume, light it well and sensitively, and fill it with objects that are beautiful – that pretty much covers it, however you decide to do it in each case.”

    – Paul Hecker

    Prahran Residence | Photo by Shannon McGrath

    What values drive your design process?

    Paul: Value for me is both literal value we provide and our design values. The literal value comes from questioning – why would you employ an interior designer who is expensive, you employ them because we can create something more special than you could do on your own. We always set out to question the brief, question the client, and try and give them more than they’re expecting so they feel they walk away feeling they’ve got good value for money. That’s value on that level – and I think that’s important, the value you have as an interior designer.

    In terms of design values, I think creating spaces that mean something, that have longevity, respectfulness – one of the things we talk about is respectfulness to the architecture, so we very much respond to the architecture we’re working with. Craftsmanship is also important – we’re always talking within our studio about ‘don’t call it joinery’ because once you do that it becomes disposable. Instead we think of it more like furniture, and we love working with people who take pride in what they’re doing, so the joiners we work with at the moment take pride in what they’re doing and that’s important to us too.

    Prahran Residence | Photo by Shannon McGrath

    How would you describe your design aesthetic?

    Paul: What both of us want is spaces that feel good. It’s interesting, my house that I designed, it’s nearly 17 years old and while there have been minor changes, I haven’t fundamentally changed what the house is. And I look at it now and think would I do it the same way now, absolutely not – but do I like being in the space – absolutely.

    Hamish: Our studio space is probably similar to that point in that it’s ‘indicative of us’ even though it hasn’t been done by a designer and has absolutely no fit out, it has pieces of furniture we like, chairs we collect, and we feel good in it because of the placement of the objects and the space itself – it’s a nice place to be. There’s a light touch against the existing architecture, lighting is used to draw focus to the key aspects of the space.

    Paul: I also think we’re about a purity of design that stems from what we’re individually drawn to – Hamish and I are both obsessed with churches of any period because they’re created with money, love and a spiritual passion, created to exult something – and all with real materials.  A lot of what we do when we travel is look at churches; you go into the La Sagrada Familia and there is no other building where people would have been prepared to invest decades years of time and money, where it transcends the human in the sense that generations have come and gone and this building is still being built – the passion is still there. It is exulted.

    Hamish: There’s a heightened sense of experience that the church does have, and the role of the church has not really changed, when we were in Scandinavia, the midcentury churches we walked into were incredible. We went to a Mario Botta church in Switzerland that was barely bigger than a small room, and there were no words. It’s one of those spaces where the architecture was the interior, the interior was the architecture, every aspect of the space was just beautifully resolved, beautifully clean and crafted beautifully.

    Polperro Winery | Photo by Shannon McGrath
    Polperro Winery | Photo by Shannon McGrath
    Polperro Winery | Photo by Shannon McGrath

    What are some of the most formative projects you’ve worked on, and why?

    Paul: I think it goes back to The Ivy in 2007/2008 – it was the perfect combination of architect, graphic designer, interior designer, client and building working together in a process that I feel was rewarding for everyone involved and regardless of outcomes I go “that’s the ideal way to work”. That’s how you create something that’s big, yet you all go away feeling like you had an important role. It’s obviously one of the standout projects because of its size, and the way we were involved in a process of new architecture in a cityscape, and created an extraordinary development. For me, that’s still a highlight. There have been a lot of nice jobs – we’re working on one at the moment which is the old Georges building, that’s a beautiful refurbishment of a night club, but other than projects like the Ivy you do look at the ones you’re working on at present because they’re most at the forefront of your mind.

    Hamish: The Ivy is a really high contrast project compared to some of the other projects we do that are more high-paced, lower-budget projects, but we’re always looking for the opportunity in every project. Polperro Winery was to me very successful because people just loving staying there, even though it’s a very simple fit out in an existing shell, but when you’ve got a view in a space you don’t need to impress people.

    What is something clients tend to forget or overlook in the design process, and how do you overcome it?

    Hamish: I think it’s two things – firstly an honest and frank discussion around the cost and timeline of fit outs in an interior space, and the idea that design is a process. As designers, you try to ease your client through these things, but maybe the discussion should be more honest and upfront from the beginning when you’re going through the brief – both the true cost and the expectations.

    Sometimes people think an interior outcome is a fully-resolved product, the same way a plate or a kettle may be the end result of thousands of prototypes. We don’t get to make a prototype, we are more often than not working with new ideas, new materials in a new environment, to create something unique, and there’s one instance where that happens but there’s no guarantee that it’s all going to be perfect and resolved and on time, because there’s a lot of things in that time that can happen or influence the project.

    Uccello at ivy | Photo by Shannon McGrath

    And now, a couple of Melbourne questions: Where do you live and in Melbourne and what do you love most about it?

    Hamish: East Melbourne – beautiful in its own right, but the proximity to everything; the vibrancy of Collingwood just off to the North, spectacular gardens and open space to the South, proximity to the studio in the East, and the bustle of the CBD to the West…. at the end of my street.

    Paul: St Kilda – For me it is the middle of everything. Great shopping, the beach, its chequered history, the heritage architecture, the food… I could keep on going. Favourite place to eat:

    Hamish:  Almost a cliché…but France Soir! Always the go-to for a great dinner and a fine catch up with friends.

    Paul: It has to be Di Stasio, it’s a St Kilda institution and if I had to nominate a last meal it would be the after-school sandwich – veal in buttery white bread… Favourite place to drink:

    Hamish: Marion… and I just rediscovered Enoteca on Gertrude Street. Common ingredient…good wine!

    Paul:  My drink of choice is coffee, about 6 cups a day. I’m loving Frankie’s in St Kilda at the moment… They do an amazing raspberry and coconut slice. Favourite place to shop:

    Hamish: Spaces like Hub, Modern Times and Franque. Innovative retailers who successfully redefine both the showroom and art gallery experience.

    Paul: Ralph Lauren, Ralph Lauren, Ralph Lauren… you get the picture! Local rituals:

    Hamish: MCG and surrounds. Usually dictated by my dog Bergie….. always involves a walk, sometimes a tennis ball….and of course a plastic bag!

    Paul: I walk every day with my friend Dave or my friend Kris. We choose different routes each morning and critique the buildings we walk past. I am always very scathing..

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